The Power of Compassionate Self-Talk

Posted by Deborah Farmer Kris on Mar 5, 2019 11:04:04 AM

Recently, I was talking to a former student about some of the struggles she had faced in high school -- painful insecurities, academic pressures, social missteps, and health and family concerns.   She’s nearly 30, and her journey has led her to a career that she loves and that enriches the lives of others.

It’s a familiar story -- who among us hasn’t faced and overcome challenges?  What struck me was the compassion in her voice when she talked about her teenage self. She expressed a longing to go back, give her young self a hug, and say, “I understand things feel tough right now. You will find your way through this.  You are stronger than you realize.” Her whole manner exuded empathy and kindness.

I recently spoke with Dr. Kristin Neff, the leading researcher on the topic of self-compassion, and I have had a chance to share some of what I have learned with several students here at Montrose. It’s a message worth sharing with you, too.

As Neff told me, self-compassion isn’t self-pity (poor me!) and it isn’t arrogance (I’m the best). Instead, it’s about treating yourself and your shortcomings with kindness, reminding yourself that you are human and -- like all humans -- you are a work in progress. Neff says, “Most of us have learned how to be supportive of others. We have to give ourselves permission to treat ourselves the same way.”

As I wrote in an article for MindShift:

Most of us have a habitual way of talking to ourselves when we make a mistake or struggle with something. For many people, said Neff, self-criticism is the “number one way we motivate ourselves.” It’s the voice in our head that reminds us of all the consequences that will befall us if we fail that quiz or eat that tub of ice cream. But self-criticism brings with it “lots of unintended consequences such as anxiety and fear of failure,” said Neff. Students may become more susceptible to perfectionism and procrastination “because the fear of not measuring up looms large.”

When a student develops self-compassion, the seat of motivation shifts.  Since internal value doesn’t depend on external achievement, it frees students up to experiment, take risks and try new paths.  “Self-compassion leads to learning goals instead of performance goals — such as trying again after messing up,” said Neff. “It’s a better academic motivator than self-criticism. It’s a motivation of care instead of a motivation of fear.”

Neff said that there is an empirical link between self-compassion and growth mindset (the belief that intelligence is malleable and responsive to effort). Research shows that students who adopt a growth mindset thrive on challenges, show resilience in the face of obstacles and view failure as part of the learning process. Both self-compassion and growth mindset are robust responses to the inevitable ups and downs of life. “When we are self-compassionate, we remind ourselves ‘I am a human and the human condition is imperfect for all of us,’ ” said Neff.

As parents, we can pay attention to our own self-talk and the self-talk our children engage in. And we can model how to process difficult emotions. When we struggle, we can talk it through out loud, using a language that communicates to our kids “It’s OK to make mistakes. Now what can I learn from this?’”  

We can learn to challenge the inner critic that says, “I am a failure” or “I can’t do it” and consciously shift it to “Everyone messes up sometimes --  what I can learn from this situation so I can try again.” In this way, self-compassion helps us move on to problem-solving faster. Instead of getting stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings, we can take a deep breath and move on to what to do next. (You can read the full article here.)

As we frequently remind students at Montrose, we are all works in progress, we all have inherent dignity -- we are unique and unrepeatable --  and we all have the capacity to grow and change. What powerful message for students to hear as they work to develop a confident, compassionate inner voice.

(Image by _Alicja_ on Pixabay)

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